The first warbled notes always seem to catch me by surprise.
Though I daily enjoy the voices of resident songbirds, many weeks—months, really—have passed since I’ve heard any singing passerines. Now, in early winter, I notice a high-pitched melody that calls to mind the songs of robins. But these tunes are softer and shorter—simpler, I suppose—than those sung by robin, though just as appealing to my ears and sensibilities.
Perhaps in part that’s because they fill a big void.
Eight months, more or less, have passed since I last heard a pine grosbeak sing or seen one perched atop a tree, a favorite place for warbling. Once winter turns to spring, these members of the finch family seem to vanish from the local landscape, only to reappear more than half a year later.
I’ve been told that pine grosbeaks may nest and raise their young in the Anchorage area’s woodlands, just as they do in forested regions throughout much of Alaska. Local birding expert Thede Tobish says that grosbeaks disperse widely across our state’s boreal forests during their breeding season; and even in prime habitat—they prefer to nest in spruce trees—they occur in low densities.
Locally, breeding grosbeak numbers are small enough that even talented birders like Tobish see them only rarely, and the birds largely remain hidden in spring and summer and even into fall. Winter is when they make their Anchorage presence known. And those of us who pay attention to birds feel richer for that presence.
One way that grosbeaks call attention to themselves is through their music, which enlivens local neighborhoods and parks. If you hear a sweet and high-pitched, whistled winter song, it’s almost certainly a grosbeak. There’s simply no other competition, except for the odd robin that inexplicably breaks into song, a most unusual occurrence in winter.
Grosbeaks also grab our human interest because they’re much more abundant here in winter. And they’re easily drawn into bird feeders.
Like other northern finches (and bohemian waxwings), grosbeaks are winter wanderers that may fly great distances in search of food. And in those wanderings they often join in flocks.
Anchorage, it turns out, has an abundance of food that grosbeaks prefer. Some of it is wild, for instance spruce cone seeds, the buds of deciduous trees, and the berries of devil’s club and mountain ash. But they’ll also eat the fruits of “ornamental” trees planted by the city’s human residents. And they love sunflower seeds, which is the reason they will sometimes flock to feeders.
Grosbeaks were among my favorite guests at the bird-feeding table during the 13 years I lived up on the Hillside, the table in this case being the railing tops on the house’s upper and middle decks.
Dozens of grosbeaks sometimes landed upon those railings and formed raucous dinner lines, while breaking open the shells of raw sunflower seeds to get the meal within. I’d sometimes laugh aloud while listening to the cracking of shells outside my windows. What a pleasurable racket those birds made.
Here in Turnagain, I see grosbeaks now and then, but only in small numbers. Perhaps that’s because no one in my neighborhood puts out the sort of sunflower seed banquet that would draw in large numbers of the birds.
For those not yet familiar with these shell-cracking and sweetly warbling neighbors, pine grosbeaks are among the half-dozen or so common finch species to inhabit various parts of Alaska. The biggest of those species, they’re a little smaller than robins and slightly plumper, with thick, dark stubby bills that are ideal for cracking shells or cones.
Like many birds, males are the flashier gender, their heads and bodies (except for wings and tails) a bright red. The drabber females are primarily gray, with yellowish to orange head and rump areas. But unlike most other species—at least the ones that I’ve come to know—females join their male counterparts in sing-alongs. I’m not sure their songs can be distinguished from one another. I, for one, can’t tell them apart.
Because they’re wandering birds—known to scientists as an “irruptive” species—that travel widely in their winter search for food, the number of grosbeaks that come to town varies considerably from year to year. This is clearly shown by the tally of grosbeaks in Anchorage’s Christmas Bird Count, an annual event since the early 1960s (those tallies being an approximation or index of a species’ local abundance in any given year).
Over nearly six decades, a CBC average of 409 pine grosbeaks has been counted. But thanks to data provided by local celebrity Mr. Whitekeys—also an avid birder and leader of the local Audubon Society group—it’s clear that their winter presence can vary dramatically from year to year, with counts ranging from zero in 1963 (when there were admittedly far fewer CBC participants than nowadays) to a high of 1,376 grosbeaks in 1984.
From the late 1970s through the early 2000s, hundreds of grosbeaks were counted each year during the CBC, but over the past decade, their numbers have dropped. Three times—in 2009, 2013 and 2018—less than 100 grosbeaks were observed. And only three times have more than 300 been counted. This is in keeping with Tobish’s assessment that it appears “the species is declining in Alaska.” Why that’s so remains something of a mystery.
The winter of 2018-2019 was a lean year locally for pine grosbeaks. Only 97 were observed during the Anchorage CBC and I noticed few that winter. This year I’ve already heard and seen several of the birds, an encouraging sign.
I’ll mention here that pine grosbeaks entered my life more than a quarter-century ago, during the winter of 1993-94, the winter that songbirds changed my life (a story I’ve recounted elsewhere and may explore in greater depth some day).
Ever since their songs first caught my attention—how did I miss them for so long?—I’ve found them to have a cheerful, or at least cheering, quality. Whatever my mood, the whistled notes of pine grosbeaks inevitably lift my spirit. I especially love the fact that males and females join their voices in glorious song throughout the winter, helping to brighten our long, dark, and harshest season.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.